Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017
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Calgary flame

A weekend in Canada's hottest metropolis

Boomtown, Alberta. Boomtown, Canada. The oil patch. Calgary reigns as money capital of Canada

West. Highest wages in the land. More millionaires per capita than any city in the land. Skycrapers bursting out of the ground. The construction crane as municipal bird. And the niggling sense it could all go wrong if Alberta morphs into the environmental outlaw of the 21st century.

Dizzying growth hasn’t spoiled the small-city sensibility cherished by most Calgarians — at least not yet. Flanked by parkland, the Bow River meanders gracefully through the heart of town. Tiny frame cottages with picket fences stand up to concrete and steel monoliths.

The Stephen Avenue walking promenade ranks as one of Canada’s most vibrant people places. The city’s elevated walkway system encloses 16 kilometres of footpaths joined by 57 overhead bridges. This shrinks getting around to a human scale and gives winter the finger it so richly deserves.


Friday
5pm: An Unusual Greeting

We checked in at the Kensington Riverside Inn (tel: 877-313-3733; www.kensingtonriversideinn.com; rooms from $289), a boutique hotel whose 19 rooms come outfitted with four-poster beds, crisp Frette linens, flat-screen plasma TVs, gas fireplaces, soaker tubs, walk-in showers and Aveda amenities.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had no complaints bunking here while Pitt shot The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford on Calgary’s outskirts.

The Hotel Arts (tel: 403-266-4611; www.hotelarts.ca; rooms from $129), from the same owners, is considerably less expensive. Its sleek urban rooms are loaded with provocative local artwork.

When we opened the curtains in our room at the inn and looked out onto Memorial Drive, a young Calgarian male was gleefully baring his bum at the traffic. Local drivers must see a lot of this because they paid no attention. We’d never had a hello like that anywhere else in the world.


8pm: Eating Inn And Out

The inn, under the umbrella of the innovative Hotel Arts Group, has a fine terrace set back from traffic, an extension of its 40-seat Chef’s Table Restaurant (tel: 403-228-4442; www.kensingtonriversideinn.com/owners/owners.htm ). Cowtown cooking it ain’t: the amuse bouche was a silken pea purée with marinated shrimp and a dab of crème fraiche. An app surf-and-turf offered up perfectly seared scallops and sweet, aromatic pork belly. Saddle of lamb and confit of shoulder formed a triumphant duo supported by tender white and green asparagus.

Chef Theo Yeaman is 25, almost a senior in this era of baby chefs. Already he’s worked at Vancouver’s Lumiere, Toronto’s Canoe and Britain’s Fat Duck. The lad knows food.


Saturday
10:30am: Mavericks

We’d been told that you can’t understand the province until you’ve seen Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta at the Glenbow Museum (tel: 403-268-4100; www.glenbow.org). The must-see exhibition takes a biographical approach, pursuing a thread of unflagging individualism.

Based on the Aretha van Herk bestseller, these 48 profiles come expertly presented. How much do you know about explorer David Thompson and his Métis wife Charlotte Small? She alone journeyed enough to make American explorers Lewis and Clark look like stay-at-homes.

The exhibition’s interactive approach had us fondling beaver pelts, throwing on buffalo coats and lifting a 40-kilogram explorer’s pack. It was easy to see how hernia killed off many explorers. This wasn’t what we were told in high school, but then, nothing is. The past assumed vivid dimensions among the titans who have given Alberta its groove.


12:30pm: Prairie Oysters à la Carte

I’ve eaten an armadillo in Mexico and queen bee larvae in China, so I was not about to shrink from prairie oysters at Buzzards (tel: 403-264-6959; www.cowboycuisine.com). The saloon-like restaurant, a Calgary institution for 28 years, is well defined by a sign reading “Cowboy parking only — violators will be castrated!”

Castrated, indeed. The bull’s testicles arrived as nasty little shards of something brown and wizened, fried in greasy cornmeal batter. “Customers don’t much like them,” confessed our server, “and women especially don’t like them.” Buzzards hosts a Testicle Festival every July. I’d rather eat a buzzard.


1:30pm: 100 Wines

David Walker, former director of wines at the Banff Springs Hotel, and his partner Chris Evans beckon the nouveau riche with a new kind of wine store. Long ticked off at thousands of meaningless labels and clueless sales people, we were in the market for one.

Located in the recovering Victoria neighbourhood, near the Saddledome, 100 Wines (tel: 403-452-8820; www.davidwalkerwines.com) is true to its name: it proffers just 100 labels. The wines are hand-picked by the partners, drawing on Walker’s extensive contacts in the wine world.

Every wine has been tasted. Every wine is known and understood. Every wine has reason to be on the shelf. And Walker’s mantra? “If it costs $20, we want it to taste like $30.”

An Oregon Pinot Blanc in the massive Alsatian style? A powerhouse Pinot Noir from a tiny producer in Burgundy? A Cab Sauvignon blend of 13 grapes from “old, old, old California vines”? Step right up. This is the equivalent of having a personal wine trainer.


7:30pm: Red Hot

Rouge (tel: 403-531-2767; www.rougecalgary.com) has rated among the city’s best restaurants for a decade. It sprawls through six rooms, in an 1891, manse in the genteel Inglewood district. Though it seems overdue for a makeover, dinner guarantees some fine moments: BC spot prawns sing on a salad of warm mâche. A sterling hunk of halibut arrives atop morels poached in miso.

When the kitchen fires all its guns, it’s for the carnivores. A gastro ménage à trois brings pink and juicy lamb loin, braised short rib with Quebec foie gras, and elk loin sauced in Madeira and garnished with crispy fried sage, all on one plate.


Sunday
10:30am: Happy Stephen Avenue

We walked the Stephen Avenue National Historic District, Calgary’s pedestrian promenade, a gauntlet of a thousand historic buildings, shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafés — one of Canada’s most alive public spaces. A lad held up a sign offering free hugs. “Kiss my ass!” snarled a passing suit. But the response, especially from women, was warmer.

If you have a fondness for public sculpture, Stephen Avenue won’t disappoint. William McElcheran’s Conversation involves two fat corporate men deep in argument. Further on, the fluid interplay of the soaring steel Trees, among the mirrored faces of surrounding skyscrapers, is an urban delight.


12:30pm: Spice For Lunch

Craving Asian flavours, we found our way to Thai-Sa-On (tel: 403-264-3526; www.thai-sa-on.com), a literal hot spot for the past 19 years. Decorated with Buddhas and ferocious-looking temple guardians, it’s a transplanted Chiang Mai tourist resto. But make no mistake, this is the real deal: chatty owner Sam Chan Hao hails from Issan along the Lao border.

His menu of 139 dishes rocks with exotic promise, but nothing beats an electrifying treatment of salmon. Marinated in salt and spice and crispy fried, the juicy fish roars with hot, sour and salty notes. It’s one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever eaten.


2pm: These Boots

You don’t have to tote six-guns to enjoy the Alberta Boot Company (tel: 403-263-4605; www.albertaboot.com ). Such urban cowboys as Jean Chrétien, Jackie Chan, Brad Pitt and Robert Duvall have bought their boots here. The downtown showroom is boots as far as the eye can see: 12,000 pairs. You’ll find boots in all styles, exotically forged from the skins of ostrich, eel, lizard, python, kangaroo, alligator and shark.

ABC’s been making cowboy boots for 30 years. President Tim Gerwing says his biggest challenge was actress Lucy Liu’s thigh-highs, embossed with Chinese symbols, for the movie Shanghai Noon.

His company turns out more than 5000 pairs of boots, worth $1.5 million a year, for the Mounties. He also makes boots for police forces in Calgary, Victoria, Dallas and Birmingham, Alabama. Gerwing himself favours horn back ’gator boots with ornate kangaroo-skin tops. Ask him and he’ll show you.


7pm: CanCuisine

Set in Prince’s Island Park in the Bow River, the River Café is simply the great Canadian restaurant. It’s a pilgrimage for nationalist foodies, a shrine to the diversity of Canada’s food basket and a must for anyone curious about what actually qualifies as Canadian.

A tasting menu allowed us to gallivant in the kitchen. We spent the next four hours dining on creamy oysters from BC’s Cortes Island, raw Pacific halibut drizzled with chipotle chili oil, lightly breaded Alberta lamb sweetbreads with poached pear and toasted BC hazelnuts, crispy-skinned Lake Winnipeg pickerel, miso-marinated BC spring salmon with crunchy sea asparagus and grilled abalone mushrooms, rare Alberta bison strip loin, Berkshire pork with prosciutto and goat cheese, and a wee dessert of lemon and rhubarb cake, white chocolate sabayon, apple confit, rhubarb compote and chocolate truffles. Whew. The tab was $85. Oh, Canada.


Monday
12:30pm: Y’all come back now

On our last day, Stampede (www.calgarystampede.com) fever was transforming Calgary’s downtown. The streets were filled with cowboy hats, even pink ones for willowy Rockies girls. Looking around, we saw Calgary multiculturalism at work: Chinese cowboys, Filipino cowboys, Ethiopian cowboys. “Avoid it altogether or embrace it altogether,” we were advised. “There’s just no compromising. Stampede’s a force of nature.”

We decided to embrace it — just not the Cowboy High Style day offered to visitors for a mere $3500 per person, add another $1000 for arrival by helicopter. We had time for some rodeo and photographed cowboys practically shot into space from the backs of bucking broncs and bulls. We also had time for the Indian Village, which was not at all hokey, and the costume, song and dance of Plains Indians whose territory once spanned most of Canada’s West. We were as spellbound as the German tourists, who knew a lot more about First Nations cultures than we did.

So why were we leaving? Because you should leave any place wanting more, that’s why. We liked that Calgary (www.tourismcalgary.com or www.travelalberta. com) wears its culture on its sleeve. It’s manic. It’s marvellous. It’s genuine. And it has nothing to do with the oil patch.

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